Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) (Revised Review)

Composed by John Williams

The second installment of the sequel trilogy, The Last Jedi established itself as the most controversial entry in the Star Wars saga. The film picks up right after the end of The Force Awakens. The Rebel fleet is fleeing the First Order, but is running out of fuel. Several of the new characters search for a way to disable the hyperspace tracking of the villains so they can make one final hyperspace jump to safety. Meanwhile, Rey tries to get Luke Skywalker to return to the fight, but he refuses thanks to a dark incident in his past. Director Rian Johnson took some narrative risks that divided fans. Many felt that the portrayal of Luke Skywalker as an embittered old recluse was a betrayal of the character and his development in the original trilogy. This was just the main point of contention, with audiences and fans dividing over other aspects of the film, from a large subplot on a casino planet to the unexpected death of a major villain. Also Carrie Fisher, Leia’s actress, passed away before the film’s release, simultaneously inducing both praise for her performance in Last Jedi and an awkward situation for the continuation of the sequel trilogy. Personally I like the film but it does have some major issues. Before diving into the music, I should provide a brief lists of my pros and cons of the film so readers will have a better perspective of my personal views going in.

Pros

  1. The acting and dialogue is mostly solid, if the story itself is lacking at parts. Adam Driver and Mark Hamill deserve special mention, with the latter delivering his best on-screen performance.
  2. Great cinematic action sequences, much more interesting than J.J. Abrams’ in the other two trilogy entries.
  3. Benicio Del Toro’s hacker character. I feel that he and his narrative purpose are severely underrated.
  4. Rian Johnson’s repeal of J.J. Abrams’ attempts at mystery box storytelling and his mimicking of original trilogy plot points and revelations, especially the worn out “chosen one” narrative.

Cons

  1. The failure to expand on Abrams’ actual intriguing concepts such as Finn’s former Stormtrooper status and the Knights of Ren (a collection of dark force users with a unique assembly of weapons).
  2. The nonsensical galactic political situation, where the Republic is supposedly destroyed after losing only five planets and the First Order is suddenly running roughshod over the galaxy. This is an inherited problem from The Force Awakens, which forced the narrative into scrappy heroic underdogs vs. evil galactic empire to give audiences a comfortable, nostalgia-laden story.
  3. Turning General Hux, a fanatical villain from the previous film, into a shrieking and easily humiliated punch line (in fact the humor is getting overdone and inorganic with these blockbusters).
  4. Admiral Holdo, the purple-haired Resistance leader, is presented as a wonderful genius, but is actually a smug and incompetent idiot.

Overall, I’d say it’s an enjoyable if highly imperfect film.

Shockingly, John Williams’ contribution is underwhelming and even many film score reviewers shaved off a half star from their usual perfect five star ratings. However, I would argue that they still rate this score too highly. This is the most derivative and unengaging score of the Star Wars films, including the two non-Williams efforts from the spin-offs. Despite the music’s thematic and constructive issues, reviewers have been effusive in their praise and the Oscars even gave it a best score nomination. Several reviewers have defended The Last Jedi’s score with the excuse that Rian Johnson’s directing hamstrung the maestro’s efforts. Perhaps Johnson’s post-production style created some issues, but the idea that his controversial and divisive storytelling somehow sapped the creative juices of Williams is laughable. Williams was able to provide some real winners with Lucas’ awful prequel films. I don’t want to make the insinuation that Williams is losing it in his old age but he might be running out of ideas at this point. I prefer to think that he’s simply putting his creative energies into his original concert works and perhaps decided to phone it in a little, since apparently a high number of Star Wars fans will accept anything that features their beloved themes. Or perhaps he shared the fans’ criticism of the film and purposefully put in less effort. The most likely explanation comes from a report that Williams was handed a temp track to work off of instead of a traditional session with the director to hash out ideas. The influence of the temp track would explain the lack of originality and variation for much of the score.

Whatever the cause, this soundtrack is woefully light not just on new themes, but fresh and/or developed iterations of older themes. I used to rag on Revenge of the Sith, and still do to a point, for its failure to provide a cohesive thematic framework. But even with this issue, that score still delivered a collection of engaging and often memorable cues that fans can identify right off the bat. Many of the tracks in The Last Jedi are hard to discern from each other until repeated and dedicated listening and even then they lack the kind of oomph the previous entries had (perhaps due to John Williams’ use of the Los Angeles Orchestra). The soundtrack for TLJ has the opposite problem to ROTS in that it is heavy on the themes but low on the memorability. I prefer ROTS, since it at least gives me something different to listen to.

First to the new material. There are two major new themes, both highlighted in the concert arrangement “The Rebellion is Reborn.” The first is a light-hearted motif for Finn’s new friend Rose. The theme effectively conveys her character and adds some whimsical tones to an otherwise heavily serious score. It serves as a secondary hope motif as well, adding a dash of optimism to the desperate action cue “Battle of Crait.” It’s a fine theme, but the lack of a secondary phrase limits its use and iterations. Rose’s theme is simple when stacked up against the majority of Star Wars character themes. The second theme represents Old Luke in exile. Williams surprisingly did not choose to use the Jedi Steps motif, relegating it to one early appearance. His new theme is made up of two rhythmic phrases. The first phrase is more dramatic and would work well as a determined action motif. The second is still dramatic, but more contemplative. Like the Rose theme it’s good, but also limited in its use. There are a few other motifs, but they are for the most part very brief and simple. The one that has garnered the most attention is a determined motif that many have associated with Admiral Holdo, though it only appears in a certain segment of the film. It’s most noticeable in-film iteration is absent, but the same iteration fortunately pops up in the end credits suite. An altered variation appears near the start of “Chrome Dome.” The other motifs are introduced in “Main Title and Escape” and re-occur in “Battle of Crait.” These include a heroic add-on to the Resistance march (3:36), a Desperation motif (4:35), and a Sacrifice motif (6:15).

The lack of new themes, as well as their brevity, could be compensated with some fresh takes and development of the pre-existing themes, and this is where The Last Jedi really falters. Though it’s nice that Williams liberally references his large catalog of Star Wars themes, too many of their appearances sound copy-and-pasted from previous cues. For example, the dramatic iteration of Kylo Ren’s theme in “Revisiting Snoke” is lifted right from the end credits of The Force Awakens. Similarly, various iterations of Leia and Yoda’s themes are lifted straight from their concert arrangements. At best these can set off a nostalgia buzz. Otherwise they show a lack of imaginative use. To more casual listeners this would be fine, with the album somewhat serving as a greatest hits compilation. But to someone who loves to see music develop it’s a disappointment. Luke’s theme is actually little used, even though this is his film of the trilogy. Williams likely found it too heroic to represent the bitter old man and opted for his new theme and statements of the Force theme.

Two returning themes lose their impact in the film. The first is surprisingly the Force theme. While it was always quoted frequently, here it’s nauseatingly over-used. Not only does it appear in almost every scene involving Luke and Rey, it’s pulled out for nearly every other emotional moment. What’s worse is that most of its appearances show little variation. As a result it loses its dramatic impact well before the end credits roll. It might have been better for Williams to use the Jedi Steps motif as a recurring Rey and Luke theme. This would have spaced out the appearances of the Force theme and given more time to a barely tapped motif. The other theme that suffers is Rey’s. I was a big fan of her theme when The Force Awakens came out and was eager to see more of it. It does have many appearances, but these are almost entirely relegated to her primary core motif. The problem is that much of the emotional power of Rey’s theme comes from the second phrase and the dual rhythmic accompaniment and these are missing. The short statements of the primary motif just feel incomplete. The combined effect of scarce new themes, lack of development for older ones, and straight lifts from older scores create what I think to be an unmemorable listening experience. There are not many cues I can point to as highlights, but it is John Williams so there are still a few gems.

The first straight lift occurs right after the main title, with Williams aping the opening bit from A New Hope. Thankfully new material comes in around 1:35. The simply titled “Escape” is a strong action opener, not as good as Revenge of the Sith’s, but still engaging with an endless stream of desperate motifs and thematic flourishes. The most interesting thematic moment comes at 3:02 when the Resistance theme makes a partial building statement towards a fuller statement. A darker variation of the action motif from The Force Awakens might make an appearance at 4:21. After this the cue takes a more desperate tone as a Rebel assault on a new Star Destroyer type starts to fall apart. The music finally quiets down at 5:44 with solemn strings and brass. A heroic yet tragic melody takes over at 6:16 as a Rebel sacrifices herself to take out the Star Destroyer. This leads to the album’s first statement of the Force theme at 6:55. I recommend checking out the complete version of the cue, which runs over 12 minutes as opposed to the commercial album’s edited down 7 minute version. It provides more action as well as statements of Poe’s heroic theme.

The first half of the album bounces between the two main plot threads. The Luke and Rey sequences on Ahch-To Island have their moments, but feel repetitive thanks to the constant inclusion of the Force theme. The abundance of moody underscore is a sore point. Williams is famous for even making this kind of material engaging with his choice of instruments and orchestral density but here the passages between the thematic statements, which themselves are repetitive, fail to be engaging. “Ahch-To Island” brings back the Jedi Steps motif. As said earlier, this motif is unfortunately discarded from the rest of the score. The Old Luke theme makes an initial partial statement at 2:16, and Rey’s theme makes its first return at 2:48 to lead into a fuller presentation of Old Luke’s theme. “Old Friends” features several classic themes as Luke remembers his, well, old friends, with statements of the Force and Leia themes. The music grows less nostalgic and more dark with a statement of Rey’s theme (1:50). Kylo Ren’s secondary motif appears (2:30) to represent Luke’s fears of creating another Dark force user out of Rey as he did Kylo. The only alleviation from the darkness is a brief phrase of Old Luke’s theme and yet another appearance of the Force theme.

“Lesson One” is a more mystical cue with yet more of the Force theme as well as short statements of Rey’s theme. As the Force training goes awry, Williams brings in perilous strings. “Who Are You?” is more dark material from the Luke and Rey scenes. There’s not much to say about it. It’s moody underscore that doesn’t really sustain the listener’s interest until over two minutes in, when the music picks up pace with brief fragments of Luke’s theme. “The Cave” is more moody underscore from a scene that purposefully echoes and subverts the cave sequence from The Empire Strikes Back. The non-melodic strings start to swell several times, but lead to no firm conclusion as Rey frustratedly fails to find answers about her background. In light of her failure the music takes a sad and bitter turn. “The Sacred Jedi Texts” starts with yet another lonely horn performance of the Force theme. Yoda’s theme subtly slips in at 0:41, leading to a more dramatic iteration of the Force theme (1:03). After some fillerish underscore and more of the Force theme, Yoda’s theme makes a full appearance taken straight from its concert arrangement.

The tracks centered around the plight of the Rebel fleet and the side quest undertaken by Finn and Rose are much better in quality, probably because there is more chance for excitement. “Revisiting Snoke” focuses on the villains. It kicks off with Snoke’s simplistic dark choral theme. Williams provides no further development for it, but anyone who has seen the film will understand why. After Kylo Ren’s secondary motif, Vader’s theme makes a brief return to album at 1:12. The track ends with a lift of Kylo Ren’s theme from The Force Awakens’ end credits suite. “The Supremacy” is an action track that starts with a bombastic iteration of Ren’s theme. The Resistance march, alongside the new heroic motif, comes forth to battle the villain theme. The highlight of the track is not the action, but the incorporation of Leia’s theme. Her theme appears in a somber and tension-filled moment (2:04) and then, for the first time, on piano (2:34). For the infamous Mary Poppins scene the Force theme leads to a heroic iteration out of her concert suite. “Fun with Finn and Rose” introduces Rose’s theme right at the outset. The playful melody leads to a rhythm-only statement of the Resistance march (around 0:50). Leia’s theme makes an appearance before the full Resistance march appears.

“Canto Bight” is a semi-diagetic cue which echoes the Cantina music from A New Hope with a more distinctly Latin flavor (actually music borrowed from the famous Brazilian song “Aquarela do Brasil” and then a more American free style. While it seems to have purposefully been designed to echo the famous cantina music, Williams does invigorate it with some unique touches so I won’t dismiss it. More engaging is “The Fathiers,” a light-hearted chase scherzo with several heroic statements of Rose’s theme in its last minute.

The album to this point has had a few highlights, but some unengaging and unoriginal music as well. It takes a good jump in quality when the plot threads start to connect in “A New Alliance.” The first minute of this track is nothing special, just more moody underscore. The real fun starts at 1:07 with a brassy statement of the Force theme. This starts off a neat action cue which brings back prequel-style percussion at 2:15 and also has a scene-specific action signature. “Chrome Dome” has a special sense of urgency that leads into a heroic rendition of the Rebel Fanfare. The second half of the cue uses mickey mouses a melee fight between Finn and shiny Stormtrooper Captain Phasma, with pounding drums and brass strikes mimicking their movements. These two tracks really helped make these action scenes the best in the movie. “The Battle of Crait” is the big action finale. Like “Escape” it’s an edited down version of a much longer cue. A lot of the pieces are great, but there’s something off about the flow of the action, possibly due to the album edits. It contains many themes, the standout a particularly uplifting iteration of Rose’s theme at 0:48 and 1:25. There is a recurring string rhythm that connects the various thematic statements. The Rebel fanfare heralds the appearance of the Millennium Falcon about three minutes in, with Rey’s theme appearing over the string rhythm. 3:45 sees a nostalgic reference to the Endor battle music from Return of the Jedi. This was included just because the Falcon is performing the same acrobatics it did in that film. At 5:50 the Sacrifice motif from the first track is altered to lead to a sad and solemn string and choral piece as one character goes for a suicide run.

“The Spark” starts with a heavily defeatist tone as the Resistance has run out of options. Things brighten a minute in when finally Luke and Leia’s theme returns to the saga. It’s great to have this woefully underused theme back. Williams makes a sad reference to Han and Leia’s theme at 2:03. What follows is an awesome bit. Those who saw the trailer may remember a cool rhythmic variation of Vader’s theme. Well, Williams actually puts it into his score here as Luke goes out to face down the First Order alone. “The Last Jedi” begins with dissonant brass. Things take a more melodic turn with the Force theme and angelic choir (1:00). Kylo Ren’s theme finally gets a new variation with choral accompaniment (1:50) which does not represent the villain’s triumph, but the fact that he has been fooled and is now very angry. “Peace and Purpose” starts with an epic iteration of the Force theme which would have more power if it hadn’t been so overused earlier on. Kylo Ren’s theme appears one last time as a militaristic march (1:10). Poe’s theme makes its only appearance on album at 1:54. Rey’s theme, interlaced with the Force theme, leads to the Rebel fanfare as the heroes prepare to rebuild the Resistance.

“Finale” starts whimsically with Luke’s theme on celeste as kids play out the heroes of Star Wars. The Force theme leads into the end credits suite and boy, this track is a mess. The end credits starts off well enough with Rose’s theme leading to a piano rendition of Leia’s theme as a dedication to Carrie Fisher appears on screen. The Old Luke theme takes over for a while and from there the end credits becomes a scattershot collection of small cues, from bits of “Battle of Crait” to Yoda’s theme to the supposed Holdo motif. The problem is that with so few new themes, Williams seems to struggle to come up with material to fill the end credits. The effects is greatly disjointed and it might have been wise to not include all of this medley on album. At least Rey’s full theme finally appears at the end.

The entire score has been found in good quality, so I can briefly touch upon some of the non-commercial music from one of the expanded bootlegs as well as the For Your Consideration album (these albums are sent to the Academy for possible Oscar nominations). “Holdo’s Resolve” is a somewhat unreleased highlight, as much of it is already included in the album’s “Finale.” Disputing the idea that its heroic motif represents Holdo is the short track “Admiral Holdo,” which instead features a subdued variation of the Resistance theme. More notable is the inclusion of the Emperor’s theme in the complete “A New Alliance.” Williams affixes it to the end of Snoke’s choral theme. This was probably intended to draw parallels with a similar scene in Return of the Jedi, but ironically ended up making sense with a revelation concerning Snoke in Rise of Skywalker. There are a few other moments of note. “Canto Bight/The Master Codebreaker” has a brief swelling moment evocative of Golden Age Hollywood that is comically cut off. The opening of “Finn and Rose Escape” definitely should have been on album. Rey’s core motif is accompanied by the rhythm section as she does some self-training with Luke’s lightsaber. Instead of building into the second section of her theme, Williams segues it into the first section of Luke’s theme before it is cut off for comedic effect. Another highlight to note is “Rey’s Journey,” which in its first act has some fast-paced brass music with multiple iterations of Rey’s theme.

Overall the Last Jedi is a score that has a lot of good and often great music, but there are serious problems. Williams scores the scenes on Ahch-To Island with uninteresting moody pieces or repetitive uses of the Force theme. Further use of the Jedi Steps motif and Old Luke theme, as well as the other pieces of Rey’s theme, would have made these cues stronger. His material for the other plot threads are stronger thanks to the energy of the Resistance material and Rose’s theme. The album noticeably takes an upturn in quality with the second half, with the larger action cues and some memorable dramatic moments in the last few tracks. I know many listeners and reviewers are quite taken with this score, but I am going to be the voice of dissent here and give The Last Jedi my lowest score for a Star Wars soundtrack.

Rating: 7/10

Tracklisting

  1. Main Title and Escape (7:25)
  2. Ahch-To Island (4:22)
  3. Revisiting Snoke (3:28)
  4. The Supremacy (4:00)
  5. Fun with Finn and Rose (2:33)
  6. Old Friends (4:28)
  7. The Rebellion is Reborn (3:59)
  8. Lesson One (2:09)
  9. Canto Bight (2:37)
  10. Who Are You? (3:04)
  11. The Fathiers (2:42)
  12. The Cave (2:59)
  13. The Sacred Jedi Texts (3:32)
  14. A New Alliance (3:13)
  15. Chrome Dome (2:01)
  16. The Battle of Crait (6:47)
  17. The Spark (3:35)
  18. The Last Jedi (3:03)
  19. Peace and Purpose (3:06)
  20. Finale (8:28)

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